Preamble: Today is World Safety and Health at Work day(28th April) and at the same time its World Immunization Week (24-30th April). These are two very important events in the world of public health especially in the middle of a pandemic. As the WHO rallies us to understand the importance of vaccinations, the ILO on the other hand is emphasizing the need to build resilient safety and health systems at work.
The overlap here, at least in my view, is that encouraging and supporting employees to get vaccinated against infectious diseases such as COVID-19, in the long run creates a safer community at work that will enhance productivity and keep the organization going.
Vaccines bring us closer – I encourage you to get vaccinated!
By Winnie Makokha – Safety Supervisor
As the world is deeply entangled in conversations about COVID-19 vaccines, the World Health Organization (WHO) is marking the world immunization week that runs from 24th -30th April. This year’s theme is “Vaccines brings us closer”. While the immunization advocacy by WHO and its partners is not entirely focused on COVID19 vaccines, never has being closer to other people felt like an unattainable goal. We can no longer hug each other freely, we cannot shake hands, we cannot randomly pat each other’s backs, we can’t visit people with chronic illnesses even if they are our bosom friends and family, we can’t mourn together, we can’t celebrate together, we can’t worship together. We are not close to each other as we would like.
Why is vaccination important?
The biggest question though, is why get vaccinated or immunized ? Immunizations through the use of vaccines has been termed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as one of the top 10 public health achievements of the 20th Century (1900-2000). Additionally, vaccination against infectious diseases is said to have increased the general life expectancy by 25 years. In a nutshell, so many preventable deaths have been avoided by the introduction and widespread use of vaccines. Basically, vaccination is a measure of prevention for disease outbreak.
Towards the end of the 19th century all the way towards the 20th Century, the world was ravaged with the smallpox disease that was caused by the variola virus. It is said that on average 3 out of 10 people who got infected by smallpox actually died. This is not very different from what we are experiencing with COVID19, even though we do not yet have the average figures of people who got infected vs those who died until the pandemic is declared over.
Through the development of vaccines and sustained global eradication campaigns by the WHO, smallpox that had spread across North America, South America, Europe, Asia and Africa continents was declared eradicated in the world in 1980. This is despite the disease reportedly being around from the 1700s and its widespread in the 1900s.
In Kenya, we have an immunization programme coordinated by the Ministry of Health known as Kenya Expanded Programme on Immunization (KEPI) established in June 1980. This program coordinates and monitors children’s vaccination against common diseases that could result in their deaths. The diseases against which children in Kenya are routinely vaccinated include, Polio, pneumonia, TB, Tetanus, Hepatitis B, Measles among others. These diseases are infectious and deadly at worst, in particular for children since their bodies do not have sufficient immunity to fight them. The benefits of vaccinations against these diseases and sustained campaigns by our Ministry of Health has over the years helped prevent child deaths and other debilitating effects. For example, in some communities in Kenya, you may know of families whose children are paralyzed as a result of not being vaccinated against polio. Paralysis being one of the terrible side effects of the polio disease.
The COVID-19 vaccine has similarly been developed as a measure to help reduce the outbreak of COVID-19 and even more to reduce the severe symptoms that would require hospitalization. As the world of science has greatly advanced, it was expected that we would have different types of vaccines within a relatively short period against this deadly virus. Hence, it is no surprise that we have the buzz around AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson and Johnson vaccines among many others that are still under development. The difference in these vaccines lies in the mechanism in which they act on the body and how they are made, but the target is the same – to reduce the severity of COVID-19. Even more, since vaccine production and distribution is very costly, a lot of countries in the Global south including the African continent are accessing vaccines through the COVAX facility; an initiative by the WHO and GAVI (Global Vaccine Alliance) to ensure equitable access to vaccines. This ensures that vaccines are not only accessible to countries that have financial muscle. In addition, the existing infrastructure on the ground helps governments make decisions about which vaccine to use for its population. AstraZeneca for example, can be stored in a refrigerator with temperatures of 2-8℃. Such refrigeration is easily available in most public hospitals around the country as they are used for other vaccines. This makes it easier to ensure proper cold chain storage when compared to vaccines such as Pfizer, which requires special refrigeration boxes at ultra-cold temperatures of -80 -60℃ and -25℃ to -15℃ in the freezer for 2 weeks among other storage requirements.
The Side effects
Indeed the biggest fear about vaccination seems to be on the side effects. All the vaccines have listed the side effects expected but the biggest concern has been the information around blood clots from the Astrazeneca vaccine and more recently Johnson and Johnson. Even with these adverse effects being reported so far in a very small proportion of the vaccinated population in the world, it has been noted by various medical sources that the benefits of the vaccines far more outweigh the risks. The risk of hospitalization and death by COVID-19 is greater and more certain as compared to getting the vaccine.
Other reported side effects include, headaches, soreness of the arm, fever, feeling of lethargy among others. The side effects of the vaccines are in lay terms, the very mild version of COVID-19 symptoms without actually having the disease itself. And as my colleague in public health, Tabitha Kavoi stated in a podcast interview, like all the pharmaceutical drugs that we take, we are always weighing the long-term benefits versus the side-effects in order to make a decision to prolong life.
There you go! COVID-19 vaccines have side effects, but the long term benefits far outweigh the risks that come with contracting COVID-19. I encourage you to get information from credible sources and get vaccinated. I got vaccinated on 13th April, 2021 at Kiandutu Health Centre alongside other colleagues. Have you? Take a step to move our communities, the country and the world closer to each other.
Sources that supported compilation of this piece:
World Health Organization
Center For Disease Control and Prevention – CDC
The Agakhan University Hospital, Nairobi
No Head Podcast hosted by Dorothy Ooko